The NFL may have bought itself out of a concussion trial it never wanted, but that doesn't mean the subject will go away.
The critical issue has never been about finances and whether the most lucrative sports league in the world can afford to pay the hundreds of men who believe head trauma has ruined their lives. That could always be settled with a check. The bigger problem, the one that looms like a disaster, is the culture of controlled violence that led to the concussions in the first place. No withdrawal from the league's bank account can change that.
The NFL can invent new rules, it can eliminate high tackles or tell its players to stop leading with their heads, but it can't eradicate the head blows that brought it to this point. To do so would be to destroy the very essence of what football is: a fast, often brutal, physical game in which men knock one another to the ground. As long as tackling and blocking exist, players will hit their heads. And they will face the danger of head trauma.
One of the first big studies on football concussions involved the wiring of the helmets of an entire college team in the mid-2000s. While doctors watched from a series of video cameras, sensors inside the helmets measured the force of each blow. What the researchers discovered was a surprise. A huge hit in which a defensive back crashed into a receiver knocking the pass catcher violently to the turf barely registered. But a seemingly routine brush of helmets between an offensive and defensive lineman showed one of the players had been struck with concussion force.
Little the league mandates will eliminate that blow suffered by that unfortunate lineman. Hits are going to come, players are going to get hurt, more settlements will be reached. The things that will truly make the game safer – like mandating that concussed players must sit out half a season after their injuries – are too draconian to get any traction. Few teams will want to keep on its roster a player who can't play. Few players will want to sit for such a long time, watching their jobs and careers wither away.
A world is going to exist in which a player such as Redskins linebacker London Fletcher finds himself woozy and out-of-sorts and doesn't inform the team for fear of coming out of the game. If Fletcher, perhaps the most respected player in Washington's locker room, conceals his concussions few others are going to pull themselves from games.
But the real threat to football isn't in the NFL. It isn't in the damaged brains of men playing the game today, oblivious of the time bomb ticking inside their skulls. The real threat to football comes at its base level, in the youth and pee wee leagues that build the first pangs of love in players. Parents are starting to demand officials guarantee a level of safety they can't promise the moment a child straps on a helmet. It won't be long before state legislatures get involved and laws will be passed and changes will be made.
If states can demand that 8-year-olds ride in the back seats of cars while strapped to booster seats, they can insist on ridding youth football of any hitting and tackling. Forced to choose between playing touch or tackle, many leagues might shut down altogether and the great football incubator will be turned off. This is what worries a lot of football people much more than a handful of suits filed in local courthouses.
Thursday's settlement might have eliminated a pressing public relations nightmare for the NFL, but Roger Goodell's signature on a check doesn't address the great threat that hangs over the game. The only way concussions go away is if the culture of the game changes. That would mean football wouldn't be football.
And not many people want that.